There are four basic elements of a great food photo: lighting, composition, styling, and equipment. Once you’ve got a handle on these basics, drool-worthy food photos are a mere snap away! Let’s talk about how to take pictures of food for your restaurant portfolio.
Lighting will make or break your shot. It is the single most important photography element there is. But don’t worry if you don’t have a studio full of lighting equipment. Natural daylight can make your food look phenomenal when manipulated correctly.
Stay away from direct sunlight! It might seem like a good idea at the time, but it will be harsh, flattening, and can create shadows that distract from the food. Your goal is to shoot in a shady spot on a sunny day. This will allow the bright color to shine and texture will be more discernible in subtle shadows.
The prep work will enable you to find the best time and position to set up your actual food shoot.
Spend a few days looking at different locations in your restaurant throughout the day. Take a plate of food with you and look at it through your camera in different spots at different times of the day. This prep work will enable you to find the best time and position to set up your actual food shoot. Near a window is usually a good bet. (Tip: hang a white sheet over the sun-filled window to diffuse the light and create ‘shade.’)
As chefs, you know the old adage, “you eat with your eyes.” Never has it been more true than with food photography. These pictures have no heavenly aroma, and the ambiance of your restaurant can’t help you. They have to tell the complete story for you. The composition is not just plating, though that’s a huge part of it. It includes everything in the shot including the backdrop, plate, utensils – everything. Even including just food on a white plate is a stylistic composition choice.
The composition is not just plating – it’s everything in the shot including the backdrop, plates and utensils.
The ‘rule of thirds’ is a helpful one here. Imagine your framed shot is divided into nine squares – like a tic-tac-toe grid or sudoku. Now the main subject of your photo should sit on one of the grid lines, not in the squares themselves. This gives the image a dynamic feel. The main subject could be many things, your chef, the meat on the plate, the cheese bubble on French onion soup, the sugar flower on a cake, or the plate on a tablescape. This works for things big and small. If your shot is Thanksgiving, the turkey would be on a grid line. If your shot is the turkey, the crispiest, most delicious piece of skin would be on the grid line.
The devil is in the details, but so is the fun! Now’s the time to think about plates, silverware, and tablecloths. Do you wrap sandwiches in wax paper? Serve pie with printed napkins? This is a way to tell the story of your restaurant and chefs along side the story of your food. Colorful food can benefit from simple or highly contrasting props. What fits best with your restaurant’s style? Very brown food (think stew or chili) benefits from patterned props, but be careful not to distract from the subject.
Active moments are a great way to break up a static photo gallery and inspire the viewer to imagine them holding that spoon.
Food sitting flat? Get a model! Maybe a scoop of mac and cheese on a silver spoon held aloft looks more appetizing than the bowl. Take a bit out of a sandwich and photograph a spoon cracking a crème brûlée. Active moments are a great way to break up a static photo gallery and inspire the viewer to imagine them holding that spoon!
How much equipment do you really need? With the right lighting, an iPhone or similar phone can absolutely take a fantastic photo. And maybe that works for you right now. There’s nothing wrong with that! But, if you’re ready to step up to some real photography equipment, these are good places to start.
- DSLR Camera – Check out this excellent article from CNET outlining the best entry-level DSLR cameras.
- Clip Lights – found at most hardware stores. Can act as back-up to a main light source (“fill”) or be the sun for you on a rainy day. Hang up a white sheet to diffuse it or use a big piece of white poster board to reflect the light onto your subject.
- Tripod – Manfrotto makes great tripods for those starting out. But for an even cheaper option, AmazonBasics offers a couple of different models.
- Editing Software – Polish up your photos before you send them out in the world! Photoshop is an obvious choice. But there are more options out there. Canva is a great design platform for those who don’t like to spend too much time editing pictures but still want to have pretty images.
Hopefully, this has inspired you to step up your food photo game. Make sure to share them on social media as well as your website to get the most bang for your shot.
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